Chris Hosea’s second book, Double Zero, is the first book released from Prelude. Devoted to language, rhythm and humor, Chris has written a gorgeous, sometimes painful book of subtly collaged multi-media inspired lyrics. I sat down to talk with him about his process, what we actually talked about was romantic poetry, joke lyrics, the shock of humor, killing Donald Trump and healthy stress. I’m so glad to know Chris, and to know Double Zero exists in this terrifying, wonderful, stupid-ass universe. –CB
Cornelia Barber: What immediately strikes me about your book in terms of Prelude (The Magazine/Press) is that the poems are so long and dense and romantic, and it really recalls, in certain formal ways the Romantics, and recalls Stu Watson and Rob Crawford’s (Editors of Prelude) project, which among other things includes a depth and focus in poetry, you know?
Chris Hosea: Yeah, well, that’s been kind of important for me because I think that I saw mid-century American poetry from the last century, especially Barbara Guest, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, many of these poets—I saw them through the lens of Romantic poetry.
CH: And for me it’s not as much Wordsworth and Coleridge—although they’re very, very important—as Keats and Shelley. And I think the reason is that just by chance that was what I studied in college and graduate school, so I was just very focused in on those poets. So much that I started seeing connections to them everywhere, when in fact there’s just as many connections in the writers I named from the last century with Milton or Shakespeare, or any number of other earlier writers. So it is interesting, I do seem to have a sort of fascination with Romantic poets and how they might still be relevant. And I think that a lot of what we read today is poetry, certainly in New York, that is kind of—I won’t say autobiographical, because you don’t know whether it really happened, but there’s a narrative to it, and there’s a sense that there’s a speaker, usually a singular speaker, although often one that’s invoking the word “we” a lot, who’s telling their story, implying a kind of judgment on their story. And I think that definitely ties back into Wordsworth, back to those poets who have the courage to say, I don’t have to write about, you know, Persephone; I can write about my own life—
CB: My own personal experience, of my mother, and the drama…my own personal drama…(laughs)
CH: Right, and you see that. Or even if someone is writing about racial injustice there’s usually a narrative form, there’s usually a sense of a singular speaker. And to me that’s very interesting to play with because I think it’s so much of an assumption that you can write poems, as I often do, that are just kind of a collage, just words, just different things stuck together. And someone reading it is going to infer a narrative from that, right?
CB: Yeah, and that’s definitely like Ashbery. You thank Ashbery in the Acknowledgments—
CH: Yeah, I mean, he’s been really huge there because he goes so far afield from any kind of logical, or any sort of meaningful sense of an actual person. And yet you still kind of feel, oh, it’s Ashbery, he’s telling me a story.
CB: Right. And so it’s almost as though there’s a subject that’s being created through language itself, versus a kind of narrative imposed on the language, whether through the poet’s own subjective, sort of confessional writing, or an audience’s perception of that.
CH: Right, because the sort of work of reading that’s happening in, like, language poetry, if you look at early Clark Coolidge poems or something, clearly there’s no definitive speaker. And they advocated that poets should write almost without that, so that the audience could be left with a sort of empowerment, I think they would say, to kind of put together meaning and put together their own sense of things. And I don’t really agree with that; I think it’s a very noble project, and I think that I love to read those poems because they’re so musical. Some of those, like Leslie Scalapino, [were] so important for me. You know, like the kind of things that she did to investigate breathing, and the body, dispersion of the individual. But for me, I just want to play with these things. I’m not so interested in making a point about what poetry is or is not, but instead about what can it do. Like, can I create an experience using lies and deception and using a collage of language, and a lack of a real political insight, and can I use what I have at my disposal to create the illusion that I want to create.
CB: That’s interesting too, because your poems are also so active in a way. There’s so much movement and dancing, there’s a real dimensionality to them that I think probably comes at least partly from what you’re talking about. Where you’re not on a platform making a point, necessarily. You’re just playing and finding out and exploring and seeing what happens. That’s very liberating to read, I think.
CH: Well, I think it could be very boring to read, I’ve been told. (laughs) But I think the ideal reader is someone who can let it be as music and see what it activates, you know. As opposed to—I think that a lot of people have this feeling like the teacher’s gonna ask them at the end of the poem, like, what did that mean?
CB: Right. What was it about.
CH: And you need to figure that out…Well, you’re gonna be in trouble with some of my poems, you know, if you’re trying to do that. Because I don’t know. But if there’s a music to it…I mean, that’s why I’m really, really interested in music and in singing, and in the way in which you can have a lot of nonsense and music and if it kind of goes together and creates a mood—
CB: It works.
CH: …Then it can work. Like, if you listen to pretty much all of Bob Dylan, “Quinn the Eskimo” —[what is everybody gonna do when they come]…It’s very mysterious. Maybe it’s a joke song, but maybe it’s the end of the world, you don’t really know. And letting go and just having that experience, and having somebody be renewed each time they read it: that’s what I aspire to.
CB: Mhm. Very cool. Well, I like how you talk about Bob Dylan, the joke lyric. Because there’s a lot of humor that you’re playing with, I feel like. And sometimes it’s dark humor and sometimes it’s more direct, and sometimes its form and content, at least to me, is so closely tied. Like at the end of “Richmond London,” which is, I think, pretty much your shortest—you have a couple short ones—but one of your shortest…
M: (laughs) I’ll write more in the next book.
CB: (laughs)…You end it with, “Know who would kill for you, and do it, too.” And then the poem ends, and it’s the shortest in the book. So there’s this interesting triangulation between humor, content and form. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CH: Sure. I think something that I’ve noticed is that people who I’ve known in my life who’ve been really, really funny, you don’t know where it’s coming from, like they’ll just say something out of the blue and everyone will just fall over, literally, almost fall over you know? I’ve known people like that in my life and often they are people who are really in touch with the dark side. You know, people with maybe depression, people with issues in their families that made life growing up really, really hard. If you look at famous exemplars of this, like Dave Chappelle or Louie CK…clearly they are in touch with something and they’re using it and surprising people and kind of shocking you. Like Dave Chappelle…some of the stuff on that show is so hardcore, and it just shocks you. You almost feel a shiver, but it’s so funny you can’t help but laughing. So I think he’s going in to that, he has a connection. He’s maybe—I don’t wanna say tamed, no one can tame the darkness—but it’s like he is doing something with it. He’s using that as a form of—it’s like a fusion engine on his machine. And that’s why I think typically you hear comedians are some of the darkest people, because really that difficulty arises when your joke is what’s just horrific, and what’s horrific plus. I certainly have had a lot of experiences in my life, and a lot of time thinking about all kinds of depressing shit, and I guess that has found its way into my poetry mostly as humor. And sometimes the humor is not that funny, and sometimes if it is funny you can see there’s gaps, you can see where it comes from. I think in that poem, that line that you mentioned, I became aware—and I thought this was very funny, but probably I was laughing because I was shocked—but I knew this character in graduate school. He wasn’t a graduate student, but he hung around. He was very smart, he was always a little high…No one was really clear, like, “what does he do for a job?”
CB: …right, like “why is he here?”…
CH: He wasn’t doing drugs; he wasn’t doing something obvious. But he just kind of hung out with the grad students; he was kind of dark and didn’t say much. He wasn’t a big jokester either, actually, he was just a character. But you know what? There was this one night where I realized that he would probably—and may already have—that he would actually kill someone.
CB: Right. (laughs)
CH: You know, people who are angry, and they’re even serious—they’re like, “I could totally kill that person.” Maybe for like a second, each of us has almost gotten there, and if that person were put in front of us and there’s was like a switch and we could just switch it, maybe we would do that now. I’m thinking, like, Donald Trump right now. But, already somethings going to a place in your mind where you’re like, “oh my god, I would actually think about doing that.” And here was a guy who would not only think about it; if it was the right moment, he would just do it. And for a few days after that, I was kind of hysterically laughing to myself, like, “oh my god, this guy…”
CB: That’s crazy. (laughs)
CH: So that’s the distinction I’m talking about. Between someone [saying] in a song “I would kill for you”; that could be in any song, any rap song, and people would say, “oh, this guy’s saying he’s romantic, he’s not gonna actually do it.” But what do you do with someone who really would?
CB: Right. Or the language means something, like it’s an actual characteristic. Coming back to romance and maybe holding the dialectic between pain and humor—Bataille has a thing that relates to this a little; he says—I can never quite remember it, but it’s something like, “Humor reveals to us how improbable but discursive the universe is.” And that’s why we find things funny, because it shows us our own chance nothingness in this fated universe. Which is sort of what you’re saying in terms of shock, the shock that we can feel.
CH: Yeah, it’s also, you know—you said our own chance nothingness—I like that phrase. I think there’s a way in which you’re on two rails instead of one rail—I don’t know how to put it. Like you’re standing on two little boats and not just one. And it gives you that feeling, that rush. Because, you know, I’m in my narrative right now about my life and what I’m doing, like having to fly to San Francisco tomorrow for work, you know—
CB: Oh shit.
CH: Which is…that’s what I’m telling myself, I’m feeding myself all day; these are the things that I have to think about. Then sometimes a joke is enough to make you be in another space and look back on what you were doing and not just see it as meaningless at all, but to see it as just one among many possibilities. So maybe in addition it’s a way of not taking everything so seriously, right? Being able to say, hey, wow, all this work I have to do at the agency seems like a real drag, but there’s another perspective where it’s like, yeah I have to do that. And there’s this joke. (laughs)
CB: And like you’re saying, the poetry itself, it’s playing with something, and so it’s getting you out of your own narrative and your own head and your own loyalty to all the stuff, all the mundane stuff that you’re constantly—we’re all constantly—like “here’s my job, here’s my girlfriend, here’s my life, here’s my shit…”
CH: Right, and that’s important; you have to stay focused and do your stuff. I mean, I know that sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, but after a while you’re just like, well this is what you do. It’s not just so that you can health benefits. It’s also because you have to fill your days with activity. For me poetry could not be a full-time job; there’s no way. And I could not—I mean, I guess I do what I do when I’m on a residency. I read a lot of books, write, and then spend the other 22 hours walking around and talking to people. (laughs)
CB: (Laughs) That’s what I do.
CH: I actually need a certain degree of healthy stress—
CH: Absolutely, the structure. Getting up at the same time, going in and interacting with people. I think it’s been good for me. Those times in my life, like grad school, when I was doing very little other than teach and drink and occasionally write something—that was not the happiest time.
CB: Horrible, yeah.
CH: And now that I have less time it’s better, somehow. I started at Amherst, on my MFA, with this idea, “I’m gonna sit down at my portable type writer and just write a poem. Just word by word, if it takes all day.” I had such a high standard for quality control, and now I have, like, no standard. At least when it comes to writing. I just fill notebooks, have them all over the place, and they’re just full of, like, garbage: just whatever I hear on the subway, whatever I’m thinking about, what’s on a billboard. And then I take from that and I write a poem. Like, I feel like if a poem is getting too linear and I know where it’s going and where it’s been, I just throw it away.
CB: Interesting. Because your poems are really not precious, which is something I deeply appreciate about them.
CH: Ha, well guess I fooled you, then. (laughs)
CB: No, but I don’t mean precious as in—
CH: I know what you mean, I’m just kidding. Like, “oh, this is a beautiful little poem!”
CB: Like, sweet, “I made this amazing thing, this gift to the whole world!”
CH: “My friends all wear the same sneakers as me!”
CB: Exactly!! (laughs) So I really appreciate it that, this letting go of some of the stuff that comes with deep poetry. Because it’s really deep, too. It stays deep without being precious.
CH: If you say so.
CB: For me.
CH: Clark Coolidge is so important for me. He’s putting so many things together. Once I realized that it could be more about the sound, and you could just trust the sound, what sounds best I realized I wanted that collage aspect that this book has. And not just, like, the next word or the word before, but it’s also like, sometimes when you break a certain tone and switch to a different tone, like affricative all of a sudden, it’s really liberating to just go with that and trust that and see what happens. It almost has me thinking I should write a book of totally formal poetry. Not that it has to make sense when you read it, but in terms of the number of beats in a line and the rhyming and stuff. I’ve played with that a little bit.
CB: It sounds like you love doing that.
CH: I sent like a bunch of sonnets, like twelve sonnets, they were all totally metrical. And Don Share did not accept it.
CH: I don’t know what it’s gonna take with Don Share, like, what do I have to do man? I was like, maybe I’ll try some formal poetry on him. So maybe next time it’s gonna be ancestor narratives that are really heavy, something like Basil Bunting, he likes that guy. (laughs)
CB: What’s your favorite poem in your new book?
CH: Oh, in my book?
CB: And elsewhere, from other poets.
CH: Yeah. I don’t know…
CB: Or what’s the one that just right in this moment, you’re like, yes, that’s it…
CH: Well actually it’s kind of easy, because I think my favorite poem in the book is the first poem.
CB: “I Love You”?
CH: Yeah, because that poem for me has personal meaning. But I also feel like I was able to write through that and maybe create something. So I’m always very fond of that. Which is why I put it first. It’s like, “look at me!” (laughs)
Chris Hosea was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1973, and his first book of poems Put Your Hands In, was selected by John Ashbery as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. His work as a visual artist includes Over Time Across Space, with Kim Benett, which was the subject of a 2015 full gallery exhibition at Transmitter in Brooklyn New York. His poems have appeared in 6x6, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, New American Review, Prelude, White Wall Review and VOLT. He lives in Brooklyn.